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US, Israel teachers join forces

Top Teach For America corps members are meeting with their Teach First Israel counterparts to learn from one another how best to inspire students in disadvantaged areas to succeed in school and to work on a communal vision of educational equality.

The encounter is just one stop for Teach For America corps members on the REALITY Israel Experience program, supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (CLSFF) and the Samberg Family Foundation in partnership with Teach For America and the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators.

The 10-day trip is designed to introduce corps members to Israel’s education and social justice systems, give them exposure to top Israeli leaders and thinkers, and help them uncover and recommit to the values that drive their passion for public service.

“By partnering with Teach For America to create the REALITY program, we hope to inspire corps members to embark on meaningful engagement with their personal journeys and with Israel, as well as cultivate long-term dedication toward Jewish community involvement and service,” said Lynn Schusterman, chair of CLSFF, speaking on behalf of both foundations.

“Our gathering will not stop at trading teaching tips,” said Andrew Mandel, Teach For America’s vice president of interactive learning and engagement. “It will involve sharing what we are learning from our experiences in the classroom and what larger changes it suggests we must make in our respective countries on behalf of our students and communities.”

Both Teach For America and Teach First Israel are based on a simple but powerful concept: Enlist top college graduates to become lifelong champions for educational equity by first recruiting them to teach for two years with students from low-income backgrounds.

They are both part of the Teach For All network—a collection of independent social enterprises working to expand educational opportunities in their respective countries—and are highly selective.

Last year, 48,000 people applied for 5,200 spots with Teach For America. Similarly, Teach First Israel chose 90 out 1,400 applicants for the coming school year. In 2011-2012, it will be expanding from Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa, Horfeish, Holon, Bat Yam, Petah Tikva and Or Yehuda to include schools in Lod, Akko, Kiryat Shmona, Arad and Dimona.

Among the 57 Teach For America corps members participating in the 2011 REALITY Israel Experience are:

Jessica Bero, who worked as a chef before joining Teach For America, helping to turn around Kansas City’s largest soup kitchen by bringing students in as kitchen staff.
Eric Poris, a math teacher at American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota and the only Jew on the reservation. He has also taught in the Swiss Alps, Brazil and Peru.
Leora Sher, who taught adolescent AIDS awareness in the villages of South Africa before she began teaching in Chicago.

The REALITY Israel Experience introduces corps members, leaders in their own right, to key Israeli figures in the education and social action movements, and to trailblazing Israeli initiatives like B’Maagalei Tzedek, Atid Bamidbar and Friends of the Earth.

Not only are participants examining the values that drive their commitment to public service, they are also exploring the connection between Jewish values, public service and how the two reinforce each other.

Creating better future for children worldwide
REALITY trips for Teach for America corps members were also conducted in the summers of 2009 and 2010, and the impact of the visit to Israel is profound. According to The REALITY Israel Experience: An Impact Study, it strengthens the link between participants’ Jewish identity and passion for service while deepening their commitment to social justice and the Teach For America mission.

Rachel Brody embodies REALITY’s transformational power. Before she participated in the first REALITY trip in 2009, she had never been involved in the Jewish community nor did she connect her dedication to teaching students with disabilities to Jewish values. Today she is a PresenTense Fellow in Jerusalem, where she is working on AIM, or Abilities Inclusion Movement, a social start-up that will train and certify organizations and businesses to integrate people with disabilities.

“I had never felt any connection with Israel or felt particularly Jewish,” Brody said. “Coming here on REALITY, I learned a lot about Israel and Judaism. I felt a connection with Judaism that I did not feel before. I especially identified with tikkun olam and tzedaka.”

Indeed, the REALITY Israel Experience anticipated the finding of the recently released Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults. As reported by CNN, this study underscored the need for programs that help young Jews see their volunteerism through the lens of a Jewish framework to ensure an active, enduring commitment to service and to strengthen the Jewish community’s social impact.

“It is our hope,” said Adam Simon, CLSFF’s associate national director, “that the success of the REALITY program will encourage future partnerships with secular service organizations, as well as become a model for engaging young Jews in service as a way to lead richer, more meaningfully Jewish lives.”

The encounter also promises great benefits to the Teach First Israel participants, who have just completed the program’s inaugural year.

“Meetings such as these expand their horizons, enrich their perspective, enable them to see that they are not alone and that teachers in other countries experience similar situations,” said Asaf Banner, CEO and co-founder of Teach First Israel, a joint initiative of the Ministry of Education, JDC-Israel, HaKol Hinuch and the Naomi Foundation.

“This peer-to-peer opportunity to share tips, knowledge and best practices is empowering. They will come out of it more motivated, knowing they are part of a global movement of young leaders who want to create a better future for children around the world.”

Values and Volunteering

I have learned many an important lesson from my father, lessons which I carry with me to this day. Better to get an average grade and not cheat than to copy from another student and get an ‘A’. If the grocer gives you too much change you must return it, even if you have to walk all the way back to the store. Always keep an eye open for an older person who might need help. And the one that resonates with me every day, the one that I try to listen to as much as I can, admit when you have made a mistake. There is nothing wrong with saying that you could have done better. As individuals we always have something to learn, and as a community, as a people, we always have a new lesson waiting around the corner. Such is the challenge of the Jewish people. To learn our lessons, act, and move on.

In this spirit, the recent Volunteering + Values report from the Repair the World leaves me to reflect with candor. This is a report which we as a community should find alarming. We are sending young Jewish adults out into the world to make a difference, to make a change when they don’t even know why they are doing it. But if we are to sustain our people, if we are to continue the heritage of Tikun Olam then volunteering has to be one part of a bigger personal Jewish identity. Our young adults need to know why their contribution is different and important – why it is part of the big picture of leading a Jewish life and WHAT that big picture of Jewish life is all about.

After I read the nine strategic implications in the report I could not help but think that there is a tenth. The missing implication, the missing link, the missing ‘mistake’ is that this report does not touch on the one factor which does make a difference as to whether a young Jewish adult sees their volunteering as a Jewish act.

The one factor is the central role a strong, vibrant, and relevant Jewish identity could play in the mind and heart of today’s young Jewish adult. A comprehensive Jewish identity which would touch multiple elements of their lives and give them daily messages of personal and community responsibility would drive them to see their volunteering as not only a Jewish act but a Jewish obligation.

In his book Defending Identity, Natan Sharansky defines personal identity in the context of our survival of and as a democratic world. Now maybe as a Jewish child of the 70’s I sometimes see the world through the bars of the Let My People Go poster which I had hanging in my bedroom with Ida Nudel’s picture on it, but if there is one person in contemporary Jewish life who can define Jewish identity and explain what it means to create one, it is Natan Sharansky. He describes the ‘universal quality of identity’ as one which ‘gives life meaning beyond life itself’ and ‘offers a connection to a world beyond the self.’ He further explains that identity is developed by association with others who share similar backgrounds, by connecting with previous generations and/or by being a part of a nation or culture. Identity gives one a sense of life beyond the physical and material where one feels a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. It was this sense of identity which gave Sharansky the strength to stand up to the strongest and most powerful regime in the world. A regime which aimed to crush him and his identity.

Our identity as the Jewish people goes back thousands of years in time and is rich with culture, community, hope and a commitment to not only remember but to act. To give, teach, learn, and do. We are a people of action so naturally a message of Tikun Olam is easy to convey. Yet a strong personal and community identity cannot be sustained in the long run without the other elements of being, doing and leading a Jewish life.

Folks, it is a package deal. This is how our ancestors survived pogroms, oppressive regimes, and our being thrown out of our land and exiled. And so the missing tenth ‘strategic implication’ – a well developed Jewish identity – will allow us all to look at the volunteer experience not in a vacuum but rather as one part of the whole Jewish package.

We cannot build one element of someone’s identity without other ‘have to do’s’ such as joining or forming a Jewish community, celebrating holidays and Shabbat, pursuing Jewish learning, looking at our roots and history and for every 24 hours doing something Jewish. Maybe we should ask ourselves how we can build a community of young Jewish adults which is educated to fulfill the mission of the Jewish people by being educated on the individual level and collectively making the world a better place. Volunteerism has to be part of life as a ‘whole Jew’ – a complete Jewish identity.

So how do we even approach this doing thing? How do we engage young adults in the personal pursuit of strengthening their Jewish identity?

John Dewey, world-renown educational theorist of the twentieth century, advocates the education by experience model. His theory of experience focuses on the individual having experiences of the right character in the appropriate settings and is based on the experiential continuum principle.

As we all know there are some experiences which are worthwhile educationally and others which are not. Dewey argues that it is necessary to use the principle of continuity of experience (meaning the repetition of an act) as criteria for determining whether the act is worthwhile or not. This discrimination then leads to the creation of habits – those actions we repeat, customize and perfect as we do them and as time elapses. The creation of a new habit transforms the person and engages them in the development of their personal identity. This is how opinions and attitude are formed and sensitivities developed.

The principle of continuity of experience means that each act, each experience blends into the being of the person. Remember when you were learning the ABC’s? How did you eventually know it? After you sang it over a hundred times and your parents were climbing the walls you knew it and then it became automatic – so much a ‘habit’ that when you learned to use a dictionary finding words was easy – you referenced back to your continued knowledge. This is what we call growing.

We can do better. We have for thousands of years. I am putting together a team of young adults who will be collecting and distributing ways for their peers to enhance their Jewish identity and since everyone has something to share we would like to ask each of you to take some time and send us one idea, one thought that could give us the guidance we need to make a difference.

Lisa Barkan is the Co-Founder and Director of Volunteer Jerusalem and Jerusalem Challenge and can be reached at [email protected]

Teach For America and Teach First Israel Join Forces to Build a Global Movement to End Educational Inequity

In just a few short hours, 57 up-and-coming U.S. change agents will be on their way to Israel to connect with local peers and leaders – and their counterparts at Teach First Israel – through the REALITY Israel Experience for Teach For America corps members program. While here, they will learn from one another on how best to inspire students in disadvantaged areas to succeed in school and to work on a communal vision of educational equality.

The encounter is just one stop for Teach For America corps members on the REALITY Israel Experience program, supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Samberg Family Foundation in partnership with Teach For America and the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators. The 10-day trip is designed to introduce corps members to Israel’s education and social justice systems, give them exposure to top Israeli leaders and thinkers, and help them uncover and recommit to the values that drive their passion for public service.

Speaking on behalf of both foundations, Lynn Schusterman told eJP, “By partnering with Teach For America to create the REALITY program, we hope to inspire corps members to embark on meaningful engagement with their personal journeys and with Israel, as well as cultivate long-term dedication toward Jewish community involvement and service.”

Both Teach For America and Teach First Israel are based on a simple but powerful concept: Enlist top college graduates to become lifelong champions for educational equity by first recruiting them to teach for two years with students from low-income backgrounds. They are both part of the Teach For All network – a collection of independent social enterprises working to expand educational opportunities in their respective countries – and are highly selective. Last year, 48,000 people applied for 5,200 spots with Teach For America. Similarly, Teach First Israel chose 90 out 1,400 applicants for the coming school year. In 2011-2012, it will be expanding from Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Haifa, Horfeish, Holon, Bat Yam, Petach Tikva and Or Yehuda to include schools in Lod, Acco, Kiryat Shmona, Arad and Dimona.

The participants in the 2011 REALITY Israel Experience come from a wide background of experiences, including:

  • Jessica Bero, who worked as a chef before joining Teach For America, helping to turn around Kansas City’s largest soup kitchen by bringing students in as kitchen staff.
  • Eric Poris, a math teacher at American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota and the only Jew on the reservation. He has also taught in the Swiss Alps, Brazil and Peru.
  • Leora Sher, who taught adolescent AIDS awareness in the villages of South Africa before she began teaching in Chicago.

The REALITY Israel Experience introduces corps members to key Israeli figures in the education and social action movements, and to trailblazing Israeli initiatives like B’Maagalei TzedekAtid Bamidbar and Friends of the Earth. Not only will participants examine the values that drive their commitment to public service, they will also explore the connection between Jewish values, public service and how the two reinforce each other.

REALITY trips for Teach for America corps members were also conducted in the summers of 2009 and 2010, and the impact of the visit to Israel has been profound. According to The REALITY Israel Experience: An Impact Study, it strengthens the link between participants’ Jewish identity and passion for service while deepening their commitment to social justice and the Teach For America mission.

Rachel Brody, who currently calls D.C. home, embodies REALITY’s transformational power. Before she participated in the first REALITY trip in 2009, she had never been involved in the Jewish community nor did she connect her dedication to teaching students with disabilities to Jewish values. Today she is a participant in the PresenTense Global Institute Fellowship in Jerusalem, where she is working on GIM, or Global Inclusion Movement, which will work with Jewish community centers to integrate people with disabilities into the broader community.

“I had never felt any connection with Israel or felt particularly Jewish,” Brody said. “Coming here on REALITY, I learned a lot about Israel and Judaism. I felt a connection with Judaism that I did not feel before. I especially identified with tikkun olam andtzedaka.”

Indeed, the REALITY Israel Experience anticipated the finding of the recently released Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults – a study that underscored the need for programs that help young Jews see their volunteerism through the lens of a Jewish framework to ensure an active, enduring commitment to service and to strengthen the Jewish community’s social impact.

“Meetings such as these expand their horizons, enrich their perspective, enable them to see that they are not alone and that teachers in other countries experience similar situations,” said Asaf Banner, CEO and Co-Founder of Teach First Israel, a joint initiative of the Ministry of Education, JDC-Israel, HaKol Hinuch and the Naomi Foundation. “This peer-to-peer opportunity to share tips, knowledge and best practices is empowering. They will come out of it more motivated, knowing they are part of a global movement of young leaders who want to create a better future for children around the world.”

For more information about the REALITY Israel Experience program, please visit the program website.

The risks of Jewish particularism

Seems the old particularism vs. universalism debate is rearing its head again, the critical question of whether we should help primarily “our own,” or rather view all human suffering as equally urgent.

Writing in Commentary Magazine, Shalem Center Senior Vice-President Daniel Gordis recently decried American rabbinical students’ criticism of Israel, a trend he believes stems from a shift in worldview among young Jews toward universalism.

Gordis is clear in his own preference. “What is lacking in their view and their approach,” he writes, “is the sense that no matter how devoted Jews may be to humanity at large, we owe our devotion first and foremost to one particular people—our own people.”

In an otherwise sweeping critical response to Gordis, Leonard Fein called in The Forward for a thoughtful discussion on the issue of universalism vs. particularism.

Now is a good time to continue the discussion, since the Repair the World organization has just released its “Volunteering and Values”survey of young Jewish adults.

The results will no doubt prompt community members to wonder how they can better engage Jewish youth in pursuing Jewish volunteering efforts.

Of the central findings of the survey is that “only a small portion of Jewish young adults prefer to or actually do volunteer with Jewish organizations,” that “the vast majority of Jewish young adults say it does not matter if they volunteer with a Jewish or non-Jewish organization,” and that “Jewish young adults are primarily drawn to service through universal rather than Jewish-based values or identity.”

Jewish youth are certainly volunteering – 72 percent reported such activity in the past twelve months. But they are not necessarily connecting this work to Jewish values, and most are not doing it through Jewish organizations or targeting Jewish causes.

Is the universalist-looking generation we seem to have on our hands a cause for concern? I, for one, don’t think so. What’s more, I think that we push for particularism as a serious community value only at our peril.

The problem with forcing a particularist worldview, as Gordis would, is at least two-fold. One aspect is strategic. We all possess multiple identities — gender, political, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, even neighborhood.

If I were to practice a stridently particularist approach to my charitable, volunteering and political involvements, what’s to say that my Jewish identity would win out over my being a heterosexual, female Canadian who lives in an urban center? There are already so many competing identity commitments that pushing a particularist vision might simply backfire.

The second reason is more chilling. It has to do with what happens when empathy vanishes from human interaction.

There’s a famous quotation attributed to German Pastor Martin Niemoller, and which is on display at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Tragically, we all know what happens when a particularist worldview is pushed to the unthinkable extreme.

To mark our son’s first birthday a few years ago, my husband and I decided to contribute to Project Tembo, an initiative to build schools for girls in Northern Tanzania. We knew that at some level, our son would experience certain global privileges that his female counterparts — particularly in other corners of the world — would not. We specifically went universal in our giving, hoping, in some tiny way, that he would absorb the importance of empathy early on.

As much as so much of contemporary Jewish discourse tends to stress the particular nature of Jewish (and Israeli) historical and contemporary struggles (Israel being “singled out” for criticism in the face of other countries’ egregious actions; the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and the particular nature of the origins of anti-Semitism), pushing the particularist mantra is a risky strategy at best.

Management theorists know that a silo-approach to organizations is less effective than one that harmonizes various levels of the corporation.

Political observers know that civil wars are more likely to break out when parties are organized along ethnic or religious lines rather than capturing cross-cutting identities under a single mantle.

And if we don’t act on the pain of others, there’s little reason to believe that others will help us in our time of need.

We are all interconnected on this tiny, hurting planet. At Jewish camp, we used to sing “Ani v’atah, neshaneh et ha’olam” (You and I will change the world).

The message was that tikkun olam (repairing the world) would only come about if you and I, Self and Other — not only our fellow Jews — join hands.

A universalist approach to fixing the world’s ills is efficient, strategic, and so much more richly moral than the alternative.

Farm in the City: Urban Adamah

In the last decade, the country’s growing obsession with local, traceable food has lured many Gen Y-ers away from the city and towards rural life on the farm. (Green Acres anyone?)

But in some cases, it has also brought the farm to the city. Urban agriculture and community garden projects are literally sprouting up in cities across the country from New York, Chicago and Detroit to Seattle and Los Angeles. In northern California, a new program called Urban Adamah is planting roots on a city block in Berkeley. (See what the plot looked like before the farm, here.) The food will be grown by fellows who’ll work together for three months and live in a communal house nearby. 90 percent of Urban Adamah’s produce will be donated to organizations serving people in need in the local community. The rest will be consumed by the fellows.
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